Fieldwork in times of Corona

Like everything about this global crisis, this winter’s field trip was two parts surreal, one part seemingly arbitrary decisions. The surreal yolk was, and is, the tension between reality and my lived experience, between daily news and my own comforts, posters advocating hand washing in areas with no running water, between stress and the dissolution of a personal future tense and then lazy coffee breaks on the balcony with my spouse. In short, drama and anticlimax. The white of the decisions is everything else, the surprise, the adaptation, the humbling. 

On the 4th of February, 2020, I set off for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with my partner. I have been running a research project in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts since May 2019 and, anticipating the final months of data collection, I wanted to be in situ for the grand finale. The data collection on this project has been conducted by a team of local research assistants1, so I wanted to properly wrap up. Additionally, I had some piloting planned as well as some more ethnography oriented work. The practicalities of fieldwork are of course always a quick-on-your-feet sort of exercise; the unanticipated is king. However, I have good experiences with spontaneity in Mongolia (good both in terms of positive valence, but also in terms of richness) so I had a lot of faith in adaptive capacity, if things were to go South.

When we arrived in Mongolia, the proverbial s**t had already hit the fan. Lockdown escalation in Wuhan had already started at the end of January; in Mongolia, schools had been closed, public gatherings cancelled, and the border with China shut. The first end date for these measures was March 2nd. Ha ha. I had hastily ordered some face masks before our trip, but I can’t say I had any fear or real grasp of the situation, it was something happening elsewhere. We didn’t quarantine ourselves, we weren’t questioned anywhere, we kept calm, we carried on. 

For the first two weeks things went pretty smoothly in terms of my work, I was able to visit families, research assistants were able to work on data collection, and we were slowly setting up for a move to the ger districts. During this time Mongolia’s strict measures seemed disproportionate, people were not scared, there were still conversations about things other than Corona. Most of the conversation was about the upcoming Lunar New Year- Tsagaan Sar, which is Mongolia’s most celebrated holiday. Tsagaan Sar involves much family visiting and lots of close contact so it posed a real threat. Even with no local cases, the holiday was cancelled. Can you imagine cancelling New Year’s? Cancelling Christmas?

A Mongolian Ger, a felt dwelling used by many central asian pastoralists, and also many inhabitants of Ulaanbaatar. We stayed in this one for part of the field trip.

The original plan was to spend Tsagaan Sar with the family of one of the research assistants in Western Mongolia, visiting more RA families on the way. However, given inter-city road closures that kept being extended, this trip entered a realm of perpetual postponement.

During the period of postponement I was both bored and anxious. There was nothing much for me to do. My urban fieldsite, normally so dynamic, was starting to feel very small indeed. When making decisions in the field, options often seem arbitrary and the general complexity of managing a team of about 30 people means that I just assume I won’t feel certain about my choices. However, that is when I operate under context stability, nothing is going on with the actual law. Given the road closures, we were in a situation where everyone was ready to go, that means me, my partner, my research coordinator, his partner, the driver, and the family we were going with (my research assistant, her husband, and 4 sons) within a single day’s notice. Again, I was reminded of the benefits of institutionalized spontaneity. Realistically, why would you need more than a day’s notice to embark on a 1000km journey into the Steppe? Perhaps I’ve been giving planning too much weight all this time. 

Looking back, I don’t understand what the big deal was. I could have just cancelled the trip West altogether and focused my time on Ulaanbaatar. Instead I pursued the trip with diligent fever. I think this had to do with the lurking anxiety of not doing what I set out for. I feel like I find it easy to be flexible about how things are done, but goals are more difficult, actually deciding that something cannot be done is tricky. Adaptation over cancellation. 

The roads reopened on the 3rd of March and so we decided to leave on the coming Saturday, the 7th. Not before I learnt some lessons though. As previously mentioned, we would be travelling with the family of one the RAs. With the 7th of March approaching, each day, contact with said RA became more difficult – she wasn’t picking up our calls. On two occasions we decided to stop by her home and ask if she was still ok with going. We were given the affirmative. A day before the trip, no responses. So, on the 6th of March our travels plans were rehauled, we decided to travel alone, by bus, and only visit the family of another RA. Looking back, I think I understand, the pressure must have been too much.  Given the circumstances I should definitely not have been following through with a plan that was agreed upon without the black cloud of corona hovering over everyone. In short, I was naively unaware of the danger I posed, a fact that would become more and more clear as the journey West materialized. 

The journey West became more a journey North West as we boarded the bus for the city of Murun. The bus ride took 14 hours, 10 of which were on dirt road (or ice road? What is a dirt road in -20 degrees celsius?).  On entry to Murun our bus was searched because the authorities were told foreigners were on board. Although we explained we had been in Mongolia for over a month, we were told to stay at the hotel until someone came to check our temperature. No problem, someone came the next morning and by lunch we were able to set off for the family we were visiting, another 300km, this time with a slick driver and his land cruiser. 

 Part of the road to Murun

I won’t go into detail about visiting the families besides saying it was lambing season and it was fire.

Many of the new born lambs are kept inside the family ger, as they would freeze if left outside with the adults

We spent the night with the families and were back in Murun by the 9th of March. At the same time, about 1500km away, a French national that had arrived in Mongolia on the 2nd of March was being tested for Corona. On the 10th morning, the whole country was back in lockdown, as the test was positive, and as such the first case of Covid-19 in Mongolia. There was always the risk of getting stuck somewhere on our trip, so this didn’t come as a total surprise, and yet we were unprepared. For example, I hadn’t taken my laptop, as I had been more prepared for an outdoorsy sort of trip and wasn’t willing to expose it to -20 conditions. This was all ok, and over breakfast my partner and I, and the project coordinator made our peace with some days2 in the hotel. We were not due to leave Mongolia until the end of the month, so stress levels were still low. 

The city of Murun

In my memories the 10th is now just one elongated phone call. Soon after breakfast, the project coordinator (who works as my everything when in Mongolia: driver, translator, jack of all trades, master of Mongolia) was bombarded by telephone calls from seemingly the entire administration of Murun: the local government, the emergency response team, and their grandma. The questions were all the same – who are we (meaning me and my partner), where are we from (ah the joys of explaining nationality and country of residence), what were we doing here, and why why why why why why why had we been allowed to do anything. 

We all know that being a foreigner is different everywhere – in some places it is dangerous, in some it is met with ridiculous friendliness and untempered generosity. In Mongolia, my internal joke is that the populace is sort of like the cool big sister, indifferent, not easily impressed. Noone really pays attention to you, as the outsider, and this makes it a very comfortable place to be foreign. Normally.

It became clear very quickly that our foreigner status was a concern. It didn’t help that we had been in Mongolia for a month; it didn’t help that we for sure had no contact with said Corona-positive individual. The cherry on top, and my actual anthropology nightmare was that the family we had visited the day before was told to self quarantine. We were not told to self quarantine. Hi surreal, my name is vector, I am the disease. Guilt, lack of control, and yet, weird normalcy – given that we had nothing to do, and we were definitely not going to visit any more families, we went horse riding. 

When in doubt, go horse riding.

Most Mongolian horses are kept on the open steppe, only brought close to the ger for mare milking season or if they are to be used in tourism

In the following days the lockdown deepened, predictably, and it became clear that we were not going anywhere anytime soon. Until a whirlwind of activity ended with us back in our Leipzig apartment on the 15th of March.

On the 11th of March it was announced that two evacuation flights would be leaving Mongolia – one for Berlin, and one for Seoul. Like a total moron, my initial plan wasn’t even to take the flight, just to use the flights as a pretext to get back to Ulaanbaatar. In any case, another day of phone calls, communication with two embassies in Ulaanbaatar, the EU delegation, the ministry of foreign affairs, an assortment of contacts3, and finally my embassy in Beijing. Temperature checks on two occasions pre travel permission. A 10 hour drive to Ulaanbaatar through closed “roads”, with a young driver from need-for-speed who was happy to be stranded in Ulaanbaatar, as permission for the journey was extended only one way. Five checkpoints on this journey to check our papers, and finally, more temperatures taken at the gates of UB. I was tired.

Our ride and part of the journey back to Ulaanbaatar

Purchase plane tickets, pack an apartment, say hasty goodbyes, and go to the airport. Temperature checks upon arrival at the airport, temperature checks before getting on the flight.  A flight that the hostess was kind to remind us “was not a regular flight”, so we would be getting a singular drink for the 8h journey. Inflight temperature checks. Herded out of said flight in Moscow, for a baggage check, herded back into the same flight. Don’t take off your face mask. More temperature checks. Crew now in hazmat suits. Asked to fill in form about recent travel. More temperature checks.

And then imagine, we disembark the plane in sunny Berlin, it is a balmy 13 degrees, feels like 30 after a month in -20. No one is wearing face masks, no one asks for our recent travel information. We collect our luggage amidst pensioners arriving from an early holiday in Greece. Sun kissed skin. We go to the train station. A homeless person avoids us after noticing our suitcases and facemasks, the first sign of sanity.

I only felt that I had made the right decision two days ago (the 20th of April), when Mongolia announced some more evacuation flights. In all probability, we would have been in Mongolia until the 2nd of May, had we not left immediately. But I still feel like it was perhaps a cop-out, like leaving was too easy, and why even should I run so abruptly from a place so many of the people I work with call home? I suppose we flock home when we sense danger. I had made friends outside my work, I had localized the best cheescake, the best ice tea, my favorite ramen, and the juiciest khuushuur (again, can’t recommend urban field sites enough). And yet, in distress, I left.  

Everything was fine, until it was not. I feel I was probably so wrapped up in worrying about my project and adapting to the conditions that I missed the stress that this was creating for my team. I can count myself lucky, since the current situation has not caused me any great harm personally4: the Ulaanbaatar team is safe, my family, friends, colleagues, are safe, and my work is suffering only from procrastination and competition with netflix. And yet I wonder if field work will ever be the same again. Some veils have forever been lost, I can no longer pretend that my foreigner status doesn’t bring certain issues and fears, that I feel totally safe, or that I have an open and honest relationship with everyone on the team. In some ways, that is probably for the best, and who knows how things will reshuffle after this crisis. Maybe I will finally be allowed to take the train to Mongolia instead of flying.  

1 On a side note, boy did this outsourcing help. When I set up the project I obviously was not thinking of pandemic conditions, but this has really driven home the resilience of an on-site team set-up.
2 Weeks? Months?
3 I’ve spent perhaps an unreasonable amount of time cultivating a wide range of contacts in Ulaanbaatar, they turned out to be weirdly relevant in this case.
4 Not in small part thanks to both the diligence of the MPI and specifically administration in our department to make sure everyone was safe, as well as the generally reasonable response of Germany to the crisis.